Teacher Autonomy – An Often Ignored Victim of High Stakes Testing

 

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When I think of the modern day public school teacher, I think of Gulliver’s Travels.

 

Not because I’ve ever taught the Jonathan Swift classic to my students, but because of its most indelible image.

 

Gulliver is shipwrecked on the island of the Lilliputans – tiny people who have tied the full sized sailor to the ground with thousands of itty bitty strings.

 

If that is not the picture of a public school teacher, I don’t know what is!

 

We are constantly restrained – even hogtied – from doing what we know is right.

 

And the people putting us in bondage – test obsessed lawmakers, number crunching administrators and small-minded government flunkies.

 

You see, teachers are in the classroom with students day in, day out. We are in the best position to make informed decisions about student learning. The more autonomy you give us, the better we’ll be able to help our students succeed.

 

But in an age of high stakes testing, Common Core and school privatization run amuck, teacher autonomy has been trampled into the dirt.

 

Instead, we have a militia of armchair policy hacks who know nothing about pedagogy, psychology or education but who want to tell us how to do our jobs.

 

It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that educator self-determination ever was a value people thought worth preserving in the first place.

 

Whereas in generations past it was considered anywhere from merely advisable to absolutely essential that instructors could make up their own minds about how best to practice their craft, today we’d rather they just follow the script written by our allegedly more competent corporate masters.

 

 

The way I see it, the reason for this is fivefold:

 

 

  1. Testing

    School used to be about curriculum and pedagogy. It was focused on student learning – not how we assess that learning. Now that standardized tests have been mandated in all 50 states as a means of judging whether our schools are doing a good job (and assorted punishments and rewards put in place), it’s changed the entire academic landscape. In short, when you make school all about standardized tests, you force educators to teach with that as their main concern.

  2. Common Core

    Deciding what students should learn used to be the job of educators, students and the community. Teachers used their extensive training and experience, students appeal to their own curiosity, and the community tailored its expectations based on its needs. However, we’ve given up on our own judgment and delegated the job to publishing companies, technology firms and corporations. We’ve let them decide what students should learn based on which pre-packed products they can most profitably sell us. The problem is when you force all academic programs to follow canned academic standards written by functionaries, not educators, you put teachers in a straight jacket constraining them from meeting their students’ individual needs.

 

3. Grade Promotion Formulas

It used to be that teachers decided which students passed or failed their classes. And when it came to which academic course students took next, educators at least had a voice in the process. However, we’ve standardized grade promotion and/or graduation policies around high stakes test scores and limited or excluded classroom grades. When you’re forced to rely on a formula which cannot take into account the infinite variables present while excluding the judgment of experienced experts in the classroom, you are essentially forbidding educators from one of the most vital parts of the academic process – having a say in what their own courses mean in the scheme of students educational journeys.

 

4. Scripted Curriculum

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this whole process has been the attempted erasure of the teacher – as a thinking human being – from the classroom, itself. Instead of letting us be people who observe and adapt to the realities in front of us, many of us have been forced to read from a script. It should go without saying that when you constrain educators to abide by scripted curriculum – what we used to call “teacher proof curriculum” – or pacing guides, you remove their ability to be teachers, at all.

 

5. Value Added Evaluations

 

We used to trust local principals and administrators to decide which of their employees where doing a good job. Now even that decision has been taken away and replaced by junk science formulas that claim to evaluate a teacher’s entire impact on a student’s life with no regard to validity, fairness or efficiency. However, local principals and administrators are there in the school building every day. They know what’s happening, what challenges staff face and even the personalities, skills and deficiencies of the students, themselves. As such, they are in a better position to evaluate teachers’ performance than these blanket policies applied to all teachers in a district or state – things like valued-added measures or other faith based formulas used to estimate or quantify an educator’s positive or negative impact.

 

It’s no wonder then that teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

 

You can’t freeze someone’s salary, stifle their rights to fair treatment while choking back their autonomy and still expect them to show up to work everyday eager and willing to do the job.

 

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted a representative sample of more than 37,000 American public school elementary and secondary teachers showing widespread dissatisfaction with the job in general and a lack of autonomy in particular.

In fact, they cited this lack of self-determination as a leading contributor to the nationwide teacher shortage. Having control over how you do your job is essential to being fully satisfied with your work.

Teacher-Autonomy

 

If you’re just following orders, your accomplishments aren’t really yours. It’s the difference between composing a melody and simply recreating the sounds of an amateur musician with perfect fidelity.

Today’s teachers rarely get to pick the textbooks they use, which content or skills to focus on, which techniques will be most effective in their classrooms, how to discipline students, how much homework to give – and they have next to zero say about how they will be evaluated.

And to make matters worse, sometimes it isn’t that educators are forbidden from exercising autonomy, but that they are given such a huge laundry list of things they’re responsible for that they don’t have the time to actually be creative or original. Once teachers meet the demands of all the things they have to cram into a single day, there is little room for reflection, revision or renewal.

School policy is created at several removes from the classroom. We rarely even ask workaday teachers for input less than allowing them to participate in the decision making process.

We imagine that policy is above their pay grade. They are menial labor. It’s up to us, important people, to make the big decisions – even though most of us have little to no knowledge of how to teach!

Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg says that this is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing if we really cared about improving both the teaching profession and the quality of education we provide students.

In the United States, autonomy usually stops at the district or administrative level and results in decision-making that ignores the voices of educators and the community, he says.

Sahlberg continues:

“School autonomy has often led to lessening teacher professionalism and autonomy for the benefit of greater profits for those who manage or own private schools, charter schools or other independent schools. This is perhaps the most powerful lesson the US can learn from better-performing education systems: teachers need greater collective professional autonomy and more support to work with one another. In other words, more freedom from bureaucracy, but less from one another.”

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to increased autonomy is political.

Lawmakers and pundits conflate teacher professionalism and increased decision making with union membership.

And they do have a point. Having a seat at the bargaining table is vital to educators’ self-determination.

In some states, local teachers unions negotiate annual contracts with their districts. However, most states have statewide teacher contracts that are negotiated only by state teachers unions.

These contracts can directly affect exactly how much independence teachers can exercise in the classroom since they can determine things like the specific number of hours that teachers can work each week or limit the roles that teachers can play in a school or district.

There are even some tantalizing schools that are entirely led and managed by teachers. The school does not have formal administrators – teachers assume administrative roles, usually on a revolving basis. But such experiments are rare.

In most places, teacher autonomy is like the last dinosaur.

It represents a bygone age when we envisioned education completely differently.

We could try to regain that vision and go in a different direction.

But if things remain as they are, the dinosaur will go extinct.

Autonomy is a hint at what we COULD be and what we COULD provide students…

…if we only had the courage to stop standardizing and privatizing our country to death.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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No One Ever Remembered a Teacher for Raising Standardized Test Scores

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It’s the day before school begins.

 

I’m out to eat with my family and have just taken a big bite of a juicy beef taco.

 

That’s when I notice someone standing right next to me at the restaurant.

 

So I raise my eyes upward, a meat filled tortilla overfilled with lettuce and beans hanging from my mouth, and I’m greeted with a familiar face.

 

“Mr. Singer!” the woman says with a nervous smile on her lips.

 

“Do you remember me?”

 

I think for a moment but realize I have more pressing concerns. I couldn’t reply with an answer to the woman’s question even if I did remember her.

 

So I chew and swallow and then look again.

 

“It’s me,” she says. “Tamarind.”

 

And then it hits me like a flash.

 

The face in front of me ages backward. The adult eyes soften. The taut cheeks become chubbier. And her whole figure shrinks three feet closer to the ground.

 

“Oh my God! Tamarind! Of course I remember you!” I say.

 

She smiles and blushes. I’m surprised by how nervous she is. I’m no one to inspire anxiety. I’m just a guy out with his wife, daughter and father-in-law shoving a taco in his face.

 

“When I saw you here I just had to come up to you,” she said. “I was in your 6th grade class.”

 

“I think it was 8th grade, wasn’t it?” I said.

 

“Yes! That’s right! Eighth grade!”

 

“How old are you now? My gosh I remember you when you only came up to here off the ground.”

 

“I’m 22. I’m doing really well. I just wanted you to know that you taught me how to write. If it wasn’t for you I never would have made it anywhere. I just wanted to thank you so much for everything you did for me.”

 

We chatted a bit more and then she left us to finish our meal.

 

But, of course, the whole interaction got me thinking.

 

As a teacher, you are something of a minor public figure.

 

When you’re out and about – especially if you’re somewhere in your district – you’re bound to be recognized and invariably someone will want to chat.

 

I remember one time at the bakery counter a former student gave me my order and told me he threw in a few donuts.

 

I remember laughing and telling him he didn’t need to do that.

 

“Nah, Mr. Singer, you never wrote me up for falling asleep in your class. You knew I was watching my brothers and sisters at home and never gave me shit for it. You keep those donuts.”

 

Another time at the theater I was almost late to my movie because I was listening to a former student at the concession stand catch me up on her life and what all of her friends from my class were doing these days.

 

So many students. So many kids that have now become adults.

 

You lose track of how many lives you’ve had an impact on.

 

The first few days of school are always filled with endless administrative meetings. The superintendent welcomes you with testing data. Then your principal breaks it down by building and subject.

 

You find out which diagnostic exams you have to give your students and when. You find out what your Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment Score (PVAAS) is – how good a teacher you are based on how well your students from last year did on the state standardized test.

 

On the one hand, I suppose I have no reason to feel like much of a good teacher.

 

Most of my students didn’t pass the test. They rarely do.

 

The same number of 7th graders (that’s what I taught last year) passed the reading test as in previous years. However, many more passed that were expected to fail.

 

The state uses a mystery metric based on Classroom Diagnostic Assessment (CDT) data to come up with a prediction of who they expect to pass and who they expect to fail. No one really knows how they calculate this. For all we know, the state secretary of education could examine a pile of chicken entrails before entering it all into the system.

 

Does all that data mean I’m a good teacher or not?

 

I don’t know.

 

But I do know what Tamarind thinks.

 

And I know what a host of former students have told me. I know how they react when they see me out in the wild, just living my life.

 

I’m sure there are probably former students who don’t like me. There must be those who hold a grudge for getting a 59% on an assignment. Or maybe they remember me yelling at them for something. Or – who knows – maybe they just didn’t respond to The Singer Charm.

 

But an awful lot of people come up to me who don’t have to.

 

Yesterday was the first day of classes for the year.

 

For the first time, all my classes were looped. I taught 7th grade Language Arts last year and I’m teaching the 8th grade course this year.

 

When those kids came into the class on Friday, it was like a homecoming.

 

So many smiles. So much laughter and joy. And, yes, impromptu hugs.

 

It felt like a family gathering, not a school function.

 

As I left the building feeling more exhausted than I have in months, another teacher stopped me.

 

“Steve! I wanted to catch you before you left!” she said.

 

She told me that she gave her students a survey in her class as an icebreaker. One of the questions was to name their favorite teacher from last year. My name came up a lot.

 

What can you say about that?

 

I’m actually getting choked up just typing this.

 

In my years in the classroom, I’ve helped a lot of kids get better test scores.

 

But that’s not why they come up to me. That’s not why they remember me.

 

I touched their lives in some meaningful way.

 

And they have done the same for me.

 

I’m just a guy who should really take smaller bites of his tacos.

 

But they make me feel like a hero.

 

I am so grateful.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Top 10 Reasons You Can’t Fairly Evaluate Teachers on Student Test Scores

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I’m a public school teacher.

 

Am I any good at my job?

 

There are many ways to find out. You could look at how hard I work, how many hours I put in. You could look at the kinds of things I do in my classroom and examine if I’m adhering to best practices. You could look at how well I know my students and their families, how well I’m attempting to meet their needs.

 

Or you could just look at my students’ test scores and give me a passing or failing grade based on whether they pass or fail their assessments.

 

It’s called Value-Added Measures (VAM) and at one time it was the coming fad in education. However, after numerous studies and lawsuits, the shine is fading from this particularly narrow-minded corporate policy.

 

Most states that evaluate their teachers using VAM do so because under President Barack Obama they were offered Race to the Top grants and/or waivers.

 

Now that the government isn’t offering cash incentives, seven states have stopped using VAM and many more have reduced the weight given to these assessments. The new federal K-12 education law – the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – does not require states to have educator evaluation systems at all. And if a state chooses to enact one, it does not have to use VAM.

 

That’s a good thing because the evidence is mounting against this controversial policy. An evaluation released in June of 2018 found that a $575 million push by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to make teachers (and thereby students) better through the use of VAM was a complete waste of money.

 

Meanwhile a teacher fired from the Washington, DC, district because of low VAM scores just won a 9-year legal battle with the district and could be owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay as well as getting his job back.

 

But putting aside the waste of public tax dollars and the threat of litigation, is VAM a good way to evaluate teachers?

 

Is it fair to judge educators on their students’ test scores?

 

Here are the top 10 reasons why the answer is unequivocally negative:

 

 

1) VAM was Invented to Assess Cows.

I’m not kidding. The process was created by William L. Sanders, a statistician in the college of business at the University of Knoxville, Tennessee. He thought the same kinds of statistics used to model genetic and reproductive trends among cattle could be used to measure growth among teachers and hold them accountable. You’ve heard of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) or TxVAAS in Texas or PVAAS in Pennsylvania or more generically named EVAAS in states like Ohio, North Carolina, and South Carolina. That’s his work. The problem is that educating children is much more complex than feeding and growing cows. Not only is it insulting to assume otherwise, it’s incredibly naïve.

 

2) You can’t assess teachers on tests that were made to assess students.

This violates fundamental principles of both statistics and assessment. If you make a test to assess A, you can’t use it to assess B. That’s why many researchers have labeled the process “junk science” – most notably the American Statistical Association in 2014. Put simply, the standardized tests on which VAM estimates are based have always been, and continue to be, developed to assess student achievement and not growth in student achievement nor growth in teacher effectiveness. The tests on which VAM estimates are based were never designed to estimate teachers’ effects. Doing otherwise is like assuming all healthy people go to the best doctors and all sick people go to the bad ones. If I fail a dental screening because I have cavities, that doesn’t mean my dentist is bad at his job. It means I need to brush more and lay off the sugary snacks.

 

3) There’s No Consistency in the Scores.

Valid assessments produce consistent results. This is why doctors often run the same medical test more than once. If the first try comes up positive for cancer, let’s say, they’re hoping the second time will come up negative. However, if multiple runs of the same test produce the same result, that diagnosis gains credence. Unfortunately, VAM scores are notoriously inconsistent. When you evaluate teachers with the same test (but different students) over multiple years, you often get divergent results. And not just by a little. Teachers who do well one year may do terribly the next. This makes VAM estimates extremely unreliable. Teachers who should be (more or less) consistently effective are being classified in sometimes highly inconsistent ways over time. A teacher classified as “adding value” has a 25 to 50% chance of being classified as “subtracting value” the next year, and vice versa. This can make the probability of a teacher being identified as effective no different than the flip of a coin.

 

4) Changing the test can change the VAM score.

If you know how to add, it doesn’t matter if you’re asked to solve 2 +2 or 3+ 3. Changing the test shouldn’t have a major impact on the result. If both tests are evaluating the same learning and at the same level of difficulty, changing the test shouldn’t change the result. But when you change the tests used in VAM assessments, scores and rankings can change substantially. Using a different model or a different test often produces a different VAM score. This may indicate a problem with value added measures or with the standardized tests used in conjunction with it. Either way, it makes VAM scores invalid.

 

5) VAM measures correlation, not causation.

Sometimes A causes B. Sometimes A and B simply occur at the same time. For example, most people in wheelchairs have been in an accident. That doesn’t mean being in a wheelchair causes accidents. The same goes for education. Students who fail a test didn’t learn the material. But that doesn’t mean their teacher didn’t try to teach them. VAM does not measure teacher effectiveness. At best it measures student learning. Effects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model. For instance, the student may have a learning disability, the student may have been chronically absent or the test, itself, may be an invalid measure of the learning that has taken place.

 

6) Vam Scores are Based on Flawed Standardized Tests.

When you base teacher evaluations on student tests, at very least the student tests have to be valid. Otherwise, you’ll have unfairly assessed BOTH students AND teachers. Unfortunately standardized tests are narrow, limited indicators of student learning. They leave out a wide range of important knowledge and skills leaving only the easiest-to-measure parts of math and English curriculum. Test scores are not universal, abstract measures of student learning. They greatly depend on a student’s class, race, disability status and knowledge of English. Researchers have been decrying this for decades – standardized tests often measure the life circumstances of the students not how well those students learn – and therefore by extension they cannot assess how well teachers teach.

 

7) VAM Ignores Too Many Factors.

When a student learns or fails to learn something, there is so much more going on than just a duality between student and teacher. Teachers cannot simply touch students’ heads and magically make learning take place. It is a complex process involving multiple factors some of which are poorly understood by human psychology and neuroscience. There are inordinate amounts of inaccurate or missing data that cannot be easily replaced or disregardedvariables that cannot be statistically controlled for such as: differential summer learning gains and losses, prior teachers’ residual effects, the impact of school policies such as grouping and tracking students, the impact of race and class segregation, etc. When so many variables cannot be accounted for, any measure returned by VAMs remains essentially incomplete.

 

8) VAM Has Never been Proven to Increase Student Learning or Produce Better Teachers.

That’s the whole purpose behind using VAM. It’s supposed to do these two things but there is zero research to suggest it can do them. You’d think we wouldn’t waste billions of dollars and generations of students on a policy that has never been proven effective. But there you have it. This is a faith-based initiative. It is the pet project of philanthrocapitalists, tech gurus and politicians. There is no research yet which suggests that VAM has ever improved teachers’ instruction or student learning and achievement. This means VAM estimates are typically of no informative, formative, or instructional value.

 

9) VAM Often Makes Things Worse.

Using these measures has many unintended consequences that adversely affect the learning environment. When you use VAMs for teacher evaluations, you often end up changing the way the tests are viewed and ultimately the school culture, itself. This is actually one of the intents of using VAMs. However, the changes are rarely positive. For example, this often leads to a greater emphasis on test preparation and specific tested content to the exclusion of content that may lead to better long-term learning gains or increasing student motivation. VAM incentivizes teachers to wish for the most advanced students in their classes and to push the struggling students onto someone else so as to maximize their own personal VAM score. Instead of a collaborative environment where everyone works together to help all students learn, VAM fosters a competitive environment where innovation is horded and not shared with the rest of the staff. It increases turnover and job dissatisfaction. Principals stack classes to make sure certain teachers are more likely to get better evaluations or vice versa. Finally, being unfairly evaluated disincentives new teachers to stay in the profession and it discourages the best and the brightest from ever entering the field in the first place. You’ve heard about that “teacher shortage” everyone’s talking about. VAM is a big part of it.

 

10) An emphasis on VAM overshadows real reforms that actually would help students learn.

Research shows the best way to improve education is system wide reforms – not targeting individual teachers. We need to equitably fund our schools. We can no longer segregate children by class and race and give the majority of the money to the rich white kids while withholding it from the poor brown ones. Students need help dealing with the effects of generational poverty – food security, psychological counseling, academic tutoring, safety initiatives, wide curriculum and anti-poverty programs. A narrow focus on teacher effectiveness dwarfs all these other factors and hides them under the rug. Researchers calculate teacher influence on student test scores at about 14%. Out-of-school factors are the most important. That doesn’t mean teachers are unimportant – they are the most important single factor inside the school building. But we need to realize that outside the school has a greater impact. We must learn to see the whole child and all her relationships –not just the student-teacher dynamic. Until we do so, we will continue to do these children a disservice with corporate privatization scams like VAM which demoralize and destroy the people who dedicate their lives to helping them learn – their teachers.

 


NOTE: Special thanks to the amazingly detailed research of Audrey Amrein-Beardsley whose Vamboozled Website is THE on-line resource for scholarship about VAM.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

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“He Was Kind” – My Students Describe What I’m Like as a Teacher

13-your-childs-teacher-stundet-hug

 

 

What’s the most important attribute of a good teacher?

 

 

Some might say intelligence.

 

 

You want a teacher who knows the subject matter and can convey it clearly to students.

 

 

Others might say classroom management.

 

 

You want a teacher who keeps things organized and gets kids to behave.

 

 

But for me the most important thing a teacher can be is kind.

 

 

I’m not saying intelligence, classroom management and a host of other qualities are unimportant, but if you approach your students with good will in your heart, the rest seems to fall into place.

 

 

This isn’t a long-held pedagogical belief I could have articulated for you at the beginning of the school year.

 

 

It came to me – as did so much else – from my students.

 

 

At the end of the year as my 7th graders are finishing up their final projects and we’re tidying up the room, I always give them a little survey about their experience in the class.

 

 

“I’ve been grading you all year,” I say. “Now’s your turn to grade me.”

 

The surveys can be anonymous – kids needn’t put down their names, and whatever they write has no impact on their grades.

 

 

Yet the results are always enlightening.

 

 

I wrote in detail two years ago about the survey and the kinds of responses I often get.

 

 

But this year it was one of the simplest comments that really got me thinking.

 

 

“He was kind.”

 

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That’s what one of my students told me that I had done especially well during the year.

 

 

“He was kind.” That’s all.

 

 

It was a response that was echoed by many of my students.

 

 

Another child wrote:

 

 

“He was kind (and awesome). One of the best teachers.”

 

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And another:

 

 

“He can’t [improve]. He is the best he can be and is the teacher I wish I had every year.”

 

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This is all very flattering, but what exactly did all this niceness mean?

 

 

How did being a kind teacher help me do my job? What did I do that helped students learn?

 

 

They had an answer for that, too:

 

 

“He came and sat with me and helped me through everything I needed help with.”

 

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***

 

 

“If we needed help on anything he helped and explained everything well so work was easier.”

 

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***

 

 

“What my teacher did to help me succeed was that he made me feel motivated to do the work in class and not giving us so much work at once.”

 

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***

 

 

“[He] taught me how to write essays, indent on papers and showed me a lot of useful things.”

 

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Another particularly enlightening comment was this one:

 

 

“I don’t know [how he could improve], but in this class you grew with us. So uh yeah.”

 

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And I do try to change and grow with my students. When your mandate is to individualize instruction to fit each particular child, I don’t know how you can do otherwise.

 

 

This means opening yourself up and letting students know who you are and what you stand for.

 

 

I try not to inflict my political, religious or philosophical beliefs on my classes. However, I think some core values come through.

 

 

For instance, my students knew I was going to Connecticut to give a TED Talk on the current state of public schools.

 

 

They knew my thoughts on standardized testing and school privatization – perhaps not in detail but the general shape of them, certainly. They knew my firm conviction against racism, sexism and prejudice of any kind.

 

 

Perhaps that’s why one of them wrote this:

 

 

“You’re not only a good teacher. You’re a good friend, and man.”

 

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***

 

 

“P.S. – Nice jokes and commentary.”

 

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Of course there were dissenting opinions. One child thought I was too nice:

 

 

“He is way too nice for me and you give way too much essays for people to handle. But overall grade 94%. He doesn’t like Tom Brady so yeah. And he likes the Steelers.”

 

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I guess no one’s perfect. But how interesting she thought either she deserved a stronger hand or would have been more motivated by fear and consequences. Yet I have to take her with a few grains of salt because this student identified herself on her response and had a friendly rivalry with me about football. She said I was too nice but then referenced our interpersonal rapport.

 

Another student highlighted how I wasn’t excessively permissive:

 

[He was good at] “Helping me with instructions and keeping me on task.”

 

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Most comments were unbridled approbation:

 

 

What did your teacher do especially well this year to help you succeed? – “Uh, everything.”

 

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***

 

 

In what areas can your teacher improve his/her instruction? – “I’m not sure. That’s how good a teacher he was.”

 

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***

 

“I think you did awesome, Mr. Singer. Thanks for being my reading teacher!”

 

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***

 

 

“I don’t think my teacher needs to improve. He’s already a great teacher.”

 

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And so another school year comes to an end.

 

 

I’ll miss this class. It was the first year I taught exclusively 7th grade. I’d taught one or two sections of that grade before, but never only that grade.

 

 

I’m more used to 8th grade. You wouldn’t think there’d be a world of difference between the two. And who knows? Perhaps if I teach the same grade level next year things will be even more unexpected because the kids will be different.

 

 

But when that final bell chimed, I was surprised that so many kids came up to me with hugs and tears.

 

 

They really didn’t want to see me go, and, frankly, I don’t want to see them go, either.

 

 

If I could follow them next year, I would.

 

 

I gave them everything I had to give.

 

 

I gave them my heart. I shared with them my life.

 

 

And I got back so much more.

 

 

That’s what non-teachers don’t understand.

 

 

Education is created through often reciprocal relationships.

 

 

Learner and teacher are tied together in a positive feedback loop. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which and sometimes there is no difference at all.

 

 

Thank you so much, last year’s students.

 

 

Thank you for letting me be your teacher.

 

 

Thank you for bringing out the best in me as I tried to do the same for you.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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When Students Stay Up All Night Playing Fortnite and You’ve got to Teach Them in the Morning

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There is something monstrously unfair about our teacher evaluation systems.

 

If your students fail because they were up all night playing video games, it’s your fault.

 

Seriously.

 

When students fail at academic tasks, there is no responsibility attributed to the students, no responsibility attributed to the parents and certainly no responsibility given to society.

 

It’s all just thrown on the teacher because, hey, someone’s got to be responsible. And it might as well be them.

 

I’ve written scores of articles about how standardized tests forced on students by the federal government are unfair.

 

They are developmentally inappropriate, culturally biased, and subject to a deep conflict of interest because the people making the tests get more money if test takers fail.

 

The tests drive the curriculum instead of the other way around. The scores needed to pass change from year-to-year invalidating annual comparisons. And many lawmakers pushing for these assessments are funded by the school privatization industry that uses failing test scores to sell its own fly-by-night brand of education.

 

These are real problems our education system faces every day.

 

But we mustn’t forget an even more fundamental one: we’re all responsible for student success or failure.

 

Not just teachers. EVERYONE.

 

Society, lawmakers, business people, parents – but those most responsible are the students, themselves.

 

Case and Point—

 

Over the last few months a word has entered my students’ vocabulary that hadn’t been there before: Fortnite.

 

It’s not that they’re so interested in an antiquated term for a two-week period. It’s the name of a popular multiplayer on-line shoot-em-up video game for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, and Mac. Players build forts with teammates to defend against other players or enemies.

 

Apparently, many of my students got it for Christmas. Or since there’s a free on-line version, they were turned on to it by others who had gotten the deluxe version as a present.

 

It started as an undercurrent of trash talk. “You suck at Fortnite.” “You can’t beat me on Fortnite.” “You just wish you could take me on Fortnite.”

 

And then it started to manifest physically.

 

Those same kids would come in to school with Fortnite Face – glassy red eyes, heads slumped on the table and the inability to stay awake for more than 10 minutes at a time.

 

It’s not all of my students, but it’s a significant percentage. Almost all boys. And almost all at a distinct learning disadvantage.

 

Teaching them is like teaching someone in a deep sea diver suit. They can’t really see or hear you very well. And any message you get back from them sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of the ocean.

 

When I noticed it, I cleared as much of my schedule as I could to call parents. It’s hard because administration decided not to fill positions in my department for teachers who retired last year – so all our classes are larger. And they gave me a new class I haven’t taught in years so the planning load is more cumbersome.

 

Plus I have as many special education students as legally allowed in every class, which requires mountains of extra paperwork and monitoring for each child.

 

And of course the phone in my room doesn’t call out and the cell reception is terrible, so I have to move to one of the few phones that will actually allow me to contact parents and try to communicate my concerns.

 

Most parents I talked to noticed the same things I had. Fortnite was taking over their children’s lives. Their kids were playing the game at every opportunity and ignoring most everything else.

 

However, most parents I couldn’t reach. Those cricket burner phones get disconnected quick. Others go straight to a voicemail box that’s so full it won’t accept new messages. Others allow me to leave a message that will never be returned.

 

But sometimes I did get through. And sometimes parents didn’t simply throw up their hands and say they don’t know what to do. Sometimes a parent actually laid down ground rules or took the game away.

 

However, if I’m being honest, contacting parents did not solve my problem.

 

I’m not blaming them. Most of my students live below the poverty line. That means their folks are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Or they’re grandparents raising their sons’ or daughters’ kids. Or they’re foster parents with a full house.

 

They’re doing the best they can. But it doesn’t end up stopping the addiction.

 

And – let’s be honest – it is an addiction.

 

For the first time in 2018, the World Health Organization recognized video game addiction as a real thing. Not every video game. Not every time someone sits down to play a video game. But video games can lead to addictive behavior.

 

That’s what I’m seeing in my students.

 

So after talking with as many parents as I could, I came to a mostly dead end.

 

My next step was to try to use student interests to influence instruction.

 

We were in the middle of a poetry writing unit. So I allowed students to write their poems about Fortnite.

 

That perked up a few heads.

 

Here’s a cinquain about Fortnite. Here’s an acrostic, a narrative, a concrete poem in the shape of a soldier or his gun.

 

To be honest, none of them were masterpieces.

 

They were just the normal trash talk and braggadocio written down in verse.

 

So I got an idea. Use the heightened competitive urge to push artistry.

 

We came to limericks – a difficult but fun type of poetry with five lines, a specific rhyme scheme and meter.

 

We read funny examples, we sang the rhythm together in chorus – da Dum da da Dum da da Dum – and then I set them the task of writing their own limericks.

 

With one twist. Whoever wrote the best limerick would get a homework pass.

 

That got them going like a shot.

 

All of my Fortniters perked up.

 

They wrote like I’d never seen.

 

Each wanted to one-up the others. And no one wrote about the game.

 

By the end of class, we had some pretty good poems. I wouldn’t say they are the best ever written, but they were miles better than where we were before.

 

So what does it all mean?

 

When we talk about video games these days, the conversation usually strays toward violence.

 

Pundits caution that video games will desensitize children and make them more prone to aggression and acting out. It might even contribute to the creation of school shooters.

 

Wrong.

 

In general, video games don’t make children more violent. Fortnite is a game where students shoot each other with guns all night long and it hasn’t made my students any more aggressive or violent than they already were.

 

Many cultures like the Japanese are much more into video games than ours and they have fewer violent incidents or school shootings.

 

However, video game addiction is a real thing and it impacts learning.

 

Some corporations want to try to harness this addiction to push learning. Hence the move to personalized or competency based education. That’s pure rubbish.

 

It’s a way to monetize education without paying attention to what’s best for kids. The same with gamification – using game theory to drive instruction.

 

And don’t think I’ve lost sight of my own use of competition in class. I haven’t.

 

Games and competition can be used to positive ends in moderation.

 

You can motivate reluctant kids to do things they wouldn’t normally do with competition. But it doesn’t work for everyone and it doesn’t work all the time.

 

It needs to be a novelty. Any tool can be overused.

 

Even video games aren’t bad in moderation. I used to be a gamer, myself.

 

The problem is when it becomes an addiction.

 

Our social structures can’t handle it.

 

Game corporations only care if it makes money. Parents are often stressed to the limit just to provide the basics.

 

The only group we require to be responsible is teachers.

 

And that’s just not going to work.

 

Video game addiction is another area where it becomes painfully clear how much work we all need to do to help our children succeed.

The Completely Avoidable Teacher Shortage and What To Do About It

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Hello?

Lo-lo-lo-lo…

Is anybody here?

Ere-ere-ere-ere…

Is anyone else left? Am I the only one still employed here?

Somedays it feels like it.

Somedays teaching in a public school is kind of like trying to run a resort hotel – ALL BY YOURSELF.

 
You’ve got to teach the classes and watch the lunch periods and cover the absences and monitor the halls and buy the pencils and tissues and fill out the lesson plans and conduct the staff meetings and…

Wouldn’t it be better if there were more people here?

I mean seriously. Why do we put the entire responsibility for everything – almost everything – involved in public education and put it all on the shoulders of school teachers?

And since we’re asking questions, why do we ALSO challenge their right to a fair wage, decent healthcare, benefits, reasonable hours, overtime, sick leave, training, collective bargaining… just about ANYTHING to encourage them to stay in the profession and to get the next generation interested in replacing them when they retire?

Why?

Well, that’s part of the design.

You see today’s public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by 800,000 students.

So if we wanted today’s children to have the same quality of service kids received in this country only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

Instead, our children are packed into classes of 25, 30 even 40 students!

There’s no way a single teacher can give all those children her undivided attention at all times. There’s no way she can provide them with the kind of individualized instruction we know kids need in order to fulfill their potentials.

So why did we let this happen? Why do we continue to let this happen?

First, you have to understand that there are two very different kinds of public school experience. There is the kind provided by the rich schools where the local tax base has enough money to give kids everything they need including small class sizes and hiring enough teachers to get things done efficiently. And there’s the poor schools where the majority of our kids get educated by the most dedicated put upon teachers who give 110% everyday but somehow can’t manage to keep all those plates spinning in the air at the same time so the media swoops in, wags its finger and proclaims them a “failure.”

Bull.

It’s not teachers who are failing. It’s a system that stacks the deck against them and anxiously anticipates them being unable to meet unfair and impossible expectations.

Why do we let THAT happen?

Mainly because the people with money don’t care about poor and middle class children.

But also because they see the supposed failure of public schools as a business opportunity.

This is a chance to open a new market and scoop up buckets of juicy profit all for themselves and their donors.

It’s called privatized education. You know – charter schools and vouchers schools. Educational institutions not run by the public, not beholden to elected officials, but instead by bureaucrats who have the freedom to act in the shadows, cut student services and pocket the savings.

THAT’S why there’s a teacher shortage.

They want to deprofessionalize the job of teaching.

They don’t want it to be a lifelong career for highly trained, creative and caring individuals.

Why?

Those are people they have to pay a living wage. Those are people who know a thing or two and might complain about how the corporate scheme adversely affects the children in their care.

That’s why!

So these business people would rather teaching become a minimum wage stepping stone for young adults before they move on to something that pays them enough to actually support themselves and their families.

And to do that, the powers that be need to get rid of professional teachers.

People like me – folks with national board certification and a masters degree – they need to go.

THAT’S why class sizes are so large. That’s why so few young people are picking teaching as a major in college.

It’s exactly what the super-rich want.

And it doesn’t have to be some half mad Mr. Burns who makes the decisions. In my own district, the school board just decided to save money by cutting middle school math and language arts teachers – the core educators who teach the most important subjects on the standardized tests they pretend to value so much!

I’m under no illusions that my neighborhood school directors are in bed with the privatization industry. Some are clueless and some know the score. But the decision was prompted mostly by need. We’re losing too many kids to the local charter school despite its terrible academic track record, despite that an army of kids slowly trickle back to us each year after they get the boot from the privatizers, our district coffers are suffering because marketing is winning over common sense.

So number crunching administrators had a choice – straighten their backbones and fight, or suggest cutting flesh and bone to make the budget.

They chose the easier path.

As a result, middle school classes are noticeably larger, teachers have been moved to areas where they aren’t necessarily most prepared to teach and administrators actually have the gall to hold out their clipboards, show us the state test scores and cluck their tongues.

I actually heard an administrator this week claim that my subject, language arts, counts for double points on the state achievement rubric. I responded that this information should be presented to the school board as a reason to hire another language arts teacher, reduce class sizes and increase the chances of boosting test scores!

That went over like a lead balloon.

But it demonstrates why we’ve lost so much ground.

Everyone knows larger class sizes are bad – especially in core subjects, especially for younger students, especially for struggling students. Yet no one wants to do anything to cut class sizes.

If the state and federal government were really committed to increasing test scores, that’s the reform they would mandate when scores drop. Your kids aren’t doing as well in math and reading. Here’s some money to hire more teachers.

But NO.

Instead we’re warned that if we don’t somehow pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, they’ll close our school and give it to a private company to run – as if there were any evidence at all that this would help.

But, the school privatization cheerleader rebuts, why should we reward failing schools with more money?

The same reason you reward a starving stomach with more food. So the hungry person will survive!

Right now you’re doing the same thing with the testing corporations. They make the tests and grade the tests. So if students fail, the testing corporations get more money because then students have to take — MORE TESTS! And they are forced to take testing remediation classes that have to buy testing remediation materials produced by – wait for it – the same companies that make and grade the tests!

It’s a scam, ladies and gentlemen! And anyone who looks can see it.

But when you bring this up to administrators, they usually just nod and say that there’s nothing we can do about it. All we can do is keep trying to win the game – a game that’s rigged against us.

That’s exactly the attitude that’s gotten us where we are.

We can’t just keep doing it, keep appeasing the testing and privatization industry and their patsies in the media and government.

We must fight the system, itself, not go along with it.

We need to get on a bus and go to the state capital and Washington, DC, as a staff and protest. We need our school boards to pass resolutions against the unfair system. We need class action lawsuits. We need to tell everyone in the media what we know and repeat it again and again until it becomes a refrain.

And when we get these unfair evaluations of our under-resourced impoverished and multicultural districts, we need to cry foul. “Oh look! Pearson’s tests failed another group of mostly brown and black kids! I wonder what they have against children of color!”

Force them to change. Provide adequate, equitable and sustainable funding so we can hire the number of teachers necessary to actually get the job done. Make the profession attractive to the next generation by increasing teacher pay, autonomy, resources and respect. And stop evaluating educators with unproven, disproven and debunked evaluation schemes like value-added measures and standardized test scores. Judge them on what they do and not a trussed up series of expected outcomes designed by people who either have no idea what they’re talking about or actively work to stack the deck against students and teachers.

But most of all — No more going along.

No more taking the path most traveled.

Because we’ve seen where it leads.

It leads to our destruction.

Teacher Seniority – the Seat Belts of the Education Profession

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You wouldn’t travel a long distance in your car without strapping on a seatbelt.

So why do you think teachers should spend 30 plus years in the classroom without seniority?

Everywhere you look, billionaires are paying millionaires in government to pass laws to cut taxes, slash funding and find cheaper ways to run public schools for pleb kids like yours and mine. And that often means finding ways to weaken protections for teachers, fire those with the most experience and replace them with glorified WalMart greeters.

“Hello. Welcome to SchoolMart. Please plug into your iPad and begin today’s lesson.”

This is class warfare cloaked as a coupon. It’s sabotage described as savings.

And the only way they get away with it is because reasonable people buy the steaming load of manure they’re selling.

MYTH: Seniority with Tenure means a Job for Life

Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of teachers out of work.

Tell that to all the optimistic go getters who prance out of college ready to change the world as teachers and fizzle out during the first five years.

Tell it to the handful of truly terrible teachers who for reasons only they can explain stay in a job they hate through countless interventions and retrainings until the principal has no choice but to give them their walking papers.

Oh, yes. Teachers DO get fired. I’ve seen it with my own eyes numerous times. And in each case, they truly deserved it.

(Any “bad teachers” still on the job mean there’s a worse administrator somewhere neglecting to do his or her duty.)

So what does “Seniority” and “Tenure” even mean for teachers?

Basically, it means two things:

(1) If you want to fire a teacher, you have to prove he or she deserves it. That’s Tenure.

(2) When public school districts downsize, they can’t just lay off people based on their salaries. That’s Seniority.

If you think about it, both of these are good things.

It is not a good work environment for teachers or students when educators can be fired without cause at the whim of incoming administration or radical, newly-elected school board members. Teaching is one of the most political professions we have. Tenure shields educators from the winds of partisanship. It allows them to grade children fairly whose parents have connections on the school board, it allows them to speak honestly and openly about school policy, and it empowers them to act in the best interests of their students – all things that otherwise could jeopardize their jobs.

Likewise, seniority stops the budget butchers from making experience and stability a liability.

It stops number crunchers from saying:

Hey, Mrs. Wilson has been here for 25 years. She’s got a shelf full of teaching awards. Parents and students love her. But she’s at the top of the salary scale so she’s gotta’ go.

I know what you’re going to say: Aren’t there younger teachers who are also outstanding?

Yes. There are.

However, if you put all the best teachers in one group, most of them will be more experienced.

It just makes sense. You get better at something – anything – the more you do it. This could be baking pies, building houses or teaching children how to read and write.

So why don’t we keep the best teachers and get rid of those who aren’t up to their level?

Because determining who’s the best is subjective. And if you let the moneymen decide – POOF! – suddenly the teachers who make the most money will disappear and only the cheapest ones will be left.

Couldn’t you base it on something more universal like student test scores?

Yes, you could, but student test scores are a terrible way to evaluate teachers. If you wanted to get rid of the highest paid employees, all you’d have to do is give them the most struggling students. Suddenly, their students have the worst test scores, and they’re packing up their stuff in little cardboard boxes.

Almost any stat can be gamed.

The only one that is solidly unbiased? Seniority.

You’ve either been here 15 years or you haven’t. There’s not much anyone can do to change that fact.

That’s why it prevents the kind of creative accounting you see from penny pinching number crunchers.

Along with Tenure, Seniority is a safety net. Pure and simple. It helps keep the most qualified teachers in the room with kids. Period.

But look. It’s not perfect.

Neither are seat belts.

If you’re in a car crash on a bridge where it’s necessary to get out of your vehicle quickly before it plunges into the water below, it’s possible your seat belt may make it more difficult to reach safety. This is rather rare, and it doesn’t stop most people from buckling up.

I’ve known excellent teachers who were furloughed while less creative ones were kept on. It does happen.

But if we got rid of seniority, it would happen way more often.

That’s the bottom line.

Instead of finding more leeway to fire more teachers, we should be finding ways to increase school funding – especially at the most under-resourced schools – which, by the way, are the ones where lawmakers most want to eliminate seniority. We should be looking for ways to make downsizing unnecessary. We should be investing in our children and our future.

We’ll never improve the quality of the public school system by firing our way to the bottom. That’s like trying to lose weight by hacking at yourself with a straight razor. It just won’t work.

We need to commit to public schools. We need to commit to public school students. And the best way to do that is to support the teachers who devote their lives showing up every day to help them learn.